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BOLIVIA: Coca, Poverty and Hope

Diana Cariboni and Franz Chávez

COROICO, Bolivia, Jan 4 2007 (IPS) - Just about any crop can be grown in the heart of Bolivia’s fertile Yungas region, say local farmers. But only coca has prospered. And although it is the only crop that brings anything close to a living income, local campesinos are still steeped in poverty.

Coca has been grown since time immemorial in these forest-covered mountains. Centuries ago, Spanish chroniclers described the coca plantations in the Yungas region that were controlled by the Aymara kingdoms from the highlands.

“Coca and tourism,” responds Santiago Gutiérrez, 38, the municipal government secretary in Coroico, when asked about the main economic activities in this town, the capital of the province of Nor Yungas in the “departamento” (state) of La Paz.

Coroico, a town of 12,750 people, is located 90 km north of the city of La Paz. Some 3,000 families (basically the entire population) depend on coca for a living, says Gutiérrez, who has years of experience as a leader of the “cocaleros” (coca growers) and of the local chapter of the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS).

Drug law 1008, passed in 1988, authorised the cultivation of 12,000 hectares of coca in this region near the capital for “traditional” consumption – chewing of coca leaves, and medicinal and ritual uses. But no one denies that the area planted in coca far exceeds that limit.

In this subtropical Andean region around 1,700 metres above sea level, “everything grows well,” says Gutiérrez. But “after two coca harvests, nothing else can be grown on the land,” he added.

The families plant coca on plots ranging from less than one “cato” (1,600 square metres) to one hectare in size. They also grow a few other crops, or raise a few sheep and pigs.

“A cato that we have already tired out provides between five and eight 50-pound ‘taques’ (drums or packages),” coca farmer Pacífico Olivares, 50, tells us after his initial mistrust is finally overcome.

Olivares is the president of the Coroico, Arapata and Coripata regional branches of the Departmental Association of Coca Producers (Adepcoca), which are comprised of 22 communities of coca growers.

Each taque sells on the market in La Paz for some 800 “bolivianos” (100 dollars). Coca leaf is harvested here three to four times a year, and labour power is required “to cultivate, sow, harvest, dry the leaves, and take them to market,” says Olivares’ son, who is studying administration in La Paz.

People from surrounding areas, especially the “altiplano” or highlands, come to Yungas in search of seasonal work, which pays around 3.75 dollars a day.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, who took office in January 2006, rose to prominence as a leader of the cocaleros in the central Chapare region, who were continuously at loggerheads with past administrations and their U.S.-prescribed anti-drug policies.

Bolivia is the third largest producer of illegal drug crops in Latin America, after Colombia and Peru, with some 25,000 hectares of coca crops, according to estimates by the United Nations and Washington.

Morales shifted the focus from forced eradication to voluntary or cooperative reduction of excess coca, or “rationalisation,” as the government refers to its programme. These efforts are being overseen by the influential federations of coca growers, in what is known here as “social control.”

Since 1994, the campesinos (peasant farmers) have organised themselves in community committees that make up Adepcoca, whose members monitor the cultivation and sales of coca.

Under the rationalisation programme, families are asked to reduce their plots from one hectare to one cato.

“I agree with Evo,” says Gutiérrez. If people grow more coca, prices fall, “and many people say the price could drop to 600 bolivianos per taque,” he adds.

But Adepcoca has asked for law 1008 to be amended so that the limit for legal coca is extended from 12,000 to 18,000 hectares.

“Nor Yungas is already ‘rationalised’ – there is no more space for coca crops to expand,” says an emphatic Olivares in his small brick house in Cruz Loma. The village, home to around 200 people, is just a few kilometres from Coroico.

To illustrate his point, he explains that “My father had one hectare, which he divided among his five children. I have four kids, so I’ll basically end up dividing what I have into furrows. They should carry out rationalisation in Caranavi, not here.”

Some people in this area say thousands of hectares of coca are illegally grown in that neighbouring province. U.N. satellite monitoring shows that coca is grown on more than 1,000 hectares in Caranavi.

Past governments created the problem, says Olivares. “They planted the coca to win votes. And now Evoàeveryone thinks he’ll let them continue growing it, but he won’t,” says Olivares.

Coca leaves grow year-round, need hardly any fertiliser or pesticides, and survive between 10 and 30 years if they are well cared for, say the campesinos.

The bushes of the “sweet” variety of coca grown in the Yungas region reach no higher than half a metre tall. The leaves, which are five centimetres long, shorter than those produced in the Chapare region, are considered by traditional users to be of higher quality, and are thus in greater demand.

Recalling what his grandfather used to tell him, Gutiérrez talks about the boom during colonial times. “The Spaniards brought African slaves, and the first thing they did was plant coca.”

The Spanish landowners undertook commercial production of the crop, whose nutritional and stimulant qualities made it essential to improving the productivity of workers in the mines of Potosí, some 490 km to the south.

Those times left behind “bare hills where the furrows of the coca plantations can still be seen,” says Gutiérrez.

In the first decades of the 20th century, large landholders continued controlling the business through the coca press, an instrument that was key to putting together the taques, which they also exported to Spain.

“My grandfather was born in 1920, and he used to tell me how the campesinos worked six days a week: four days without pay for the boss, two days for themselves, and one day off. And all the work was in coca,” explains Gutiérrez.

The coca business prospered until the agrarian reform of 1952, when land was distributed among the campesinos, “who didn’t know where to sell, and who couldn’t get a good price. So the coca disappeared, and was only grown for local consumption, and in its place came coffee.”

Coca began to flourish again in the Yungas region under the dictatorships of Hugo Banzer (1971-1978) and Luis García Meza (1980-1981), driven by growing demand from miners and by the firm establishment of the drug trade, which found especially good conditions in the Chapare region.

When Olivares is asked about alternative crops, he talks about tangerines, oranges, limes, grapefruit, bananas, and the excellent coffee grown here. He also mentions honey, offering us some mixed in a little water, to drink. “We could also produce meat and raise barnyard fowl,” he adds.

But crops other than coca only have one harvest a year, and fetch much lower prices.

“With citrus fruits, we are basically subsidising the government, because it never raises the price. The situation is very difficult; we don’t have land, and in this country there are no jobs,” complains Olivares.

The cocaleros are demanding government investment in alternative production plans, “which is not forthcoming,” admits Gutiérrez.

“There are no markets for these products, no roads, and the prices are low. We can abandon coca, but with the FTA (free trade agreement signed by Bogotá and Washington), Colombia is going to leave us without quotas for exporting coffee. Besides, our geography does not permit us to mechanise production,” says Olivares.

“The price is the big difference. With coca, we can just barely cover the cost of food, transportation and healthcare, and we don’t manage to save anything at all,” he points out.

Nearly 70 percent of Bolivia’s population of nine million lives in poverty, and 35 percent in extreme poverty, making it South America’s poorest country.

In the Olivares home, there is no criticism for the cocalero president. “This government is very good for us. It brought us the ‘Juancito Pinto’ (a monthly stipend of around 25 dollars per schoolchild). People are very happy,” says the small farmer.

But “it would be a good thing for the government to provide credit for the creation of microenterprises. People have not improved their standard of living through coca farming,” adds his son.

Olivares senior also points to the need to improve soil quality. “We need other projects as well, with the advice of professionals, and we need them now. We can’t wait any longer.”

The trip to Yungas involves a 90-km ride from La Paz on a rickety bus that climbs up from the city’s altitude of 3,600 metres above sea level to over 4,000, along a snowy, cold track, before beginning the descent to warmer climes.

The last 50-km stretch, a narrow dirt road carved out of the mountainside, seems impossible to navigate without tumbling into the void. In fact it is known as the most dangerous road in the world, with as many as 300 people a year dying after plunging into the ravine.

Vehicles here drive on the left side of the road, and there are “human stoplights” – men, women or children who spend a large part of their day under the beating sun at a particularly dangerous curve, signaling to cars, trucks and buses when it is safe to continue ahead – all of this against a background of spectacular beauty.

>From the road can be seen the new Cotapata-Santa Bárbara road, which runs eastward to the Brazilian border and will be much safer and wider. But the new road has been under construction for over 10 years, and “one or two kilometres” must still be completed before it can begin to be used, says the driver.

When the water is high enough, tourists go rafting on the rapids of the Yolosa River below. Another favourite activity of foreign visitors is to bicycle down “the road of death”, as this stretch has been dubbed.

The hotels in Coroico and surrounding areas and the presence of foreigners show that tourism has potential, although it has hardly been tapped.

Another foreign presence is that of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The bus station and the offices of the Central Agraria Campesina were built with USAID funds, as big shiny signs declare.

But the biggest presence in Yungas is poverty. The worst health problems are infantile diarrhea, leishmaniasis – a parasitic disease affecting the skin, mucous membranes, and internal organs that is transmitted by the bite of a sandfly – and tuberculosis, says educator Mario Arana Choque with Caritas.

The Catholic relief agency provides health and education assistance to local communities through the Central Agraria Campesina. It also takes part in efforts to train community leaders and help local residents come up with solutions to their financial problems.

But nothing looks more important than the vaccines, antibiotics and other medicines distributed by doctors and other staff of the mobile rural patrol unit (UMOPAR), which delivers “thousands and thousands of doses,” says Dr. Carlos Feraudy, who forms part of the elite anti-drug force.

This outreach effort is important for improving the image among the people of Yungas of UMOPAR, a U.S.-trained police force that has become an odd, and sometimes awkward, component of the policies of a cocalero president

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